Athletes face various challenges in their career on and off the sports field. I feel that a greater knowledge of the conceptualization of mindfulness and its impact on psychological skills could truly shift the way athletes maintain and even improve performance before, during, and after game time. In the unforgiving environment of professional sports, dysfunctional thinking can impact and interfere with performance.
When working with professional athletes, I love collaborating with my clients to develop specific strategies to address dysfunctional thinking patterns and other challenges. Coping strategies offer athletes additional psychological opportunities to enhance his or her chances of performing at his or her highest level under very demanding, stressful, and sometimes even hostile conditions.
Before going any further in this blog post, I believe it is important to give credit to where credit it is due. Mindfulness is popular and used generously among mental health professionals as treatment for a variety of mental health disorders, including most notably, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. My two personal favorite types of Mindfulness interventions are Mindfulness Based- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I was first introduced to Dr. Kabat-Zinn and MBSR in graduate school. Although I attended Stony Brook University, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in a research-based elective, dually offered by Columbia University and it's Advanced Consortium on "Evidence Based Practices", and in reflection, I am so happy I accepted the opportunity!
High performance athletes can experience a variety of performance-inhibiting stressors. Most frequently, my clients come to session and process topics that induce stress such as: unrealistic expectations because of perfectionism, competition anxiety, anger and other negative emotions, fear of failure, perceived pressure, and avoidance behavior. Additionally, other factors that can negatively impact performance include: having an avoidant coping style, interpersonal problems, or life-balance difficulties.
However, similar to the most successful surgeons, athletes have the distinct superpower to transform stressors automatically into fuel in order to meet the specific demands of the game. In other words, athletes use this automatic process, similar to autopilot as a way to use stress as energy, resulting in enhanced performance. Most frequently this superpower is an alternative label for more well-known defense mechanisms such as "compartmentalization" and "sublimation".
So if athletes have metaphorical black belts in compartmentalizing and channeling emotional and psychological stress into elite performance fuel, why are we focusing on Mindfulness? Mindfulness focuses on changing the function, not the form of behavior, emotion, thinking, or how we experience things. Mindfulness aims to change the relationship of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has no desire to change the content of those thoughts and emotions. How can this be integrated into elite sports? Perhaps breathing exercises can be introduced in a non-sport setting. Athletes can integrate mindfulness exercises directly during a big play when they focus on the breath or letting go of thoughts of pain or discomfort. One of my favorite techniques is using a body scan exercise. Again, thinking of how this can be woven into the tapestry of sport, a body scan exercise can be easily completed during the cool-down at the end of practice or training.
I don’t want to suggest that using mindfulness will automatically lead to major shifts in performance overnight. But down the road with further inclusion of mental health support in professional sports, I think we will start to see a happier and overall healthier group of professional athletes and role models.
Breathing is seriously underrated. Did you know you could improve your mood, contain anxiety, enhance sports performance, and pump the breaks just by taking a few breaths?
In previous posts, I have talked about the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. In short, the vagus nerve connects the brain to everything from the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines to different glands in the body that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, metabolism, and much more.
The vagus nerve's influence on your lungs and heart and the connection to your brain is pretty awesome, considering this trio combined controls your body and governs your mind. To manage your state of mind and stress levels, all you have to do is activate the calming parasympathetic branches of the nervous system.
Note: we typically do not have direct control over our nervous system, and we can't just press a button to turn the parasympathetic pathways on like a light switch. However, if you try to hold your breath for just a brief moment and then intentionally exhale very slowly, you can stimulate the vagus nerve and begin to feel grounded within your body and mind.
In other words, I am encouraging you to train your breath. Swimmers are exceptionally good at this skill. Yoga is another activity that focuses on breath with movement. By actively focusing on your breath and the movements of your diaphragm, your autonomic nervous system will begin to communicate with your lungs, heart, and other organs for instant relaxation.
Try to activate your own vagus nerve! How? Simply breathe out very slowly. Can you feel how your heart rate slows and your mind relaxes instantly?
Although I am writing about a new skill, I am still encouraging you to learn from yourself. You are your best friend. Nobody knows you and your situation better than yourself. If and when you need the support, I will be here for you. Just let me know if I can help.
Last Saturday I was so fortunate to take part in a Pure Barre class at the Jacksonville Jaguars Flex Field. The class was led by the owners of the Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra Beach Pure Barre studios and the field was packed! Pure Barre among other activities such as looking for shark teeth, surfing, are just some of the ways I nourish my own wellness. When I am well, I am able to connect with my clients, be more attentive and creative in my work. In taking time to prioritize my own wellness, I am able to be authentic and nurture my razor-sharp ability to attune to the needs of my clients.
Wellness is one of the critical factors in being a mental health care provider. Wellness is especially important because mental health providers are one of the primary instruments in their own work. I feel it is incredibly important to walk the talk when it comes to offering a model of wellness or self care for clients.
There are a variety of existing methods already in place to improve self-care. However, self-awareness is the first step to identify and configure a formula that will work best to create homeostasis between work, play, giving and receiving, accomplishing tasks, and doing absolutely nothing. The key to ongoing and lasting change is to pay attention to you and your body. Whatever profession you are in, the work itself can get in the way of your own wellness. And although you may be full of wellness tips for others, knowledge doesn't always translate into action for yourself. Awareness is the catalyst to change and if you can give yourself permission to change one thing, start small. Perhaps you will decide to change routine on your way home from work by practicing sets of deep breathing at each red light. Or take a moment to go outside just to feel the warmth of your sun on your skin during a bathroom break. How do you incorporate wellness into your routine? Share by leaving a comment below!
I recently came across an article on the NBA's official website from March 12, 2019, describing a league-wide mental health initiative taking aim at addressing mental health and wellness issues for players.
This is wonderful news for athletes, the NBA, and families and loved ones of athletes as well! The battles professional athletes have with mental health issues shows that money nor fame can solve everything. More importantly, it shows mental illness does not discriminate. It can affect anyone.
Whether you are struggling with a mental health illness, or you simply want to perform better mentally, the first step to working on your mental-emotional health is to be unapologetically open with yourself and recognize the emotions you are feeling. Above all, don't feel scared to reach out if you need someone to talk to. I am here to support you in all areas of your health.
Mental health matters to everyone and I think this is an amazing step in the right direction for our athletes! You can read the original article by clicking here.
What kind of space are you holding for others? Ask yourself this: am I listening to really hear what someone has to say? Or am I listening to respond?
If you listen to respond you will communicate with defensiveness. If you listen with curiosity you will communicate validation.
When your child, partner, friend, and so forth wants to share something with you, he or she wants to be heard. Listen with curiosity, reflect what you heard, and offer validation even if you don't agree. Often times I am approached by parents who are seeking guidance to better understand and "get through" to his or her child. My response is usually simple and to the effect of: "Your child is telling you what they want and how they feel, the solution is to hear what he or she is saying". Seriously. Communicating with children and adolescents is easy when barriers to understanding are removed and words are genuinely heard. I always say, "healing begins the moment we feel heard". If or when you find yourself in a dialogue with your child, spouse, friend, and so forth, I invite you to really take a moment to listen and hear what is being said.
Think of your mind as real estate property. Each time the wheels in your mind begin turning (e.g. thinking of a response, forming a judgment) the valuable property in your mind is being sold to ownership by judgment, emotion, and/or defensive thought. Using this metaphorical mental space example, giving the real estate to listening just to hear, sets the conditions for the development of mental property that is free from judgment and can gain equity through mutual understanding and connection. Remember, you can decide at any moment to designate the real estate in your mind to become open to limitless possibilities, including the possibility of holding a space for someone else to heal and feel safe.
With all this big said, there is a beautiful quote I am so excited to share with you today and it is right below these final sentences. I hope you have a great start to your week!
"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention...A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words" - Rachel Naomi Remen
It was such an honor to spend time with one of my most beloved musical artists, Mike Love last Friday here in Jacksonville, Florida. Mike's son, Christian performed lead vocals for "God Only Knows" during this performance and it was truly a beautiful moment in time to be part of the experience. Amazing how a musical performance can really pump the breaks on the world as it exists for just a moment.
I came across this AWESOME picture by Michelle Rial the other day. Without hesitation I printed it, framed it, and now get to have this in my office to share with my clients.
I always find a way to incorporate The Beatles into my practice as a therapist and I am delighted to share this with you as well!
Enjoy your Friday and welcome to the month of March!
Take a moment to scroll through these photos I took at the Jacksonville Zoo last weekend. And as you scroll through the photos, take just one moment to find one thing you notice about the tiger. Yes, just ONE thing...
Maybe your attention goes to the color of his fur, the detail in his stripes, or maybe you notice your own feelings about the tiger surfacing...
Perhaps by the time you get to the third image and you see the tiger practicing some mindfulness of his own, you will notice that this exercise took less than three swipes and a total of five minutes to do.
Therapy isn't meant to be a life sentence. Learning skills and techniques that you can apply to the real world is what I feel makes therapy a powerful investment.
Hope you are having a great week so far. Regardless if you are struggling or like Lil' Duval says, "living your best life", use this moment to take a step back, pause, and try to view your situation the way you would look at a painting in a museum.
Sometimes we can get so involved and caught up in our own story that we can forget to take a step back and see the bigger picture.
If you are at an art museum and come across a painting, you might go over to the canvas and inspect the painting from a close up angle. However, I doubt you could truly appreciate the piece of art just by studying it nose to canvas. In that case, you would be likely to take a step back and look at the painting as a whole and allowing whatever thought or emotion to surface as you stand and look at it from a distance. Why not do the same for your own story?
Taking a moment to pause, reflect, and appreciate just how far you have come isn't selfish. Gratitude is a nutrient that helps nourish the soul. *Ezekiel Elliot feed me motion*
Grief is not a linear process. Grief changes the various ways we make sense of our world with one less important person in it. When I encounter things such as these John Lennon stamps, I don't think back to the Beatles themselves. My thoughts take me back to warm memories of a beloved best friend and our connection that was founded on the Beatles and their music and I am so grateful for receiving this random yet powerful reminder of her. Find what soothes you and connect to that. Find refuse in your memories.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a clinical psychotherapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.